A Literary Tour of Madison, Wisconsin came to Wisconsin several years ago to pursue a literature Ph.D. My two choices had been UW-Madison and UC-Davis, but I never even saw the California school because I fell in love with Madison the minute I stepped off the plane.

I had never traveled beyond the Mississippi before my grad school days and only knew about the flat, rolling land of the Midwest from books and movies. Tired of the cramped life I lived on the cramped east coast, I eagerly anticipated breathing in the fresher, cleaner air of Wisconsin, seeing real cows, and eating authentic cheesy cheese. Imagine my happy surprise when I realized just how literary Madison was. I mean, CLEARLY it was going to be a bookish city since it has a major university and is the state’s capital, to boot. But books are indeed at the very heart of this lovely Midwestern oasis. Bookshops jostle each other on State Street (the main drag linking the Capitol building to the university campus), UW-Madison has the 11th largest research library collection in North America with over 7 million volumes (and that was in 2004!), and book festivals are big news. No wonder Madison was named the Best Educated City in the U.S. in 2011! So let me take you on a little tour of my adopted city; I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it like I did.


First, you must understand that Madison is an isthmus (you know, a narrow strip of land with water on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land…). But you already knew that! Anyway, many of Madison’s literary landmarks can be found right downtown, between the Capitol building and the university.

State Street looking toward the Capitol building
State Street looking toward the Capitol building

Just stroll down State Street and you’ll be overwhelmed by the abundance of fabulous bookstores (all of which I’ve frequented): A Room of One’s Own, Avol’s Bookstore (these two just merged into one location), Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Paul’s Bookstore, and Browzers Bookshop. All sell new and used books, and the first three also host authors and special bookish events. Paul’s, which is right next to the university’s largest library- Memorial Library- is a small but particularly lovely store where the bookshelves are SO CLOSE together at times that you find yourself walled in by the wonderful smell of old books. It’s basically the closest thing I’ve come to diving into a pool o’ books, Scrooge McDuck-style.

A Room of One's Own & Avol's; source
A Room of One’s Own & Avol’s

Paul's Bookstore
Paul’s Bookstore

Rainbow Cooperative Bookstore; source
Rainbow Cooperative Bookstore

Memorial Library, the largest library in ALL OF WISCONSIN, mind you, is a bookish treasure trove. It is the principal research facility for the humanities and social sciences on campus, and features numerous specialized collections. It also hosts a semiannual book sale, organized by the Friends of the UW-Madison Library. Mills Library, located in the basement (but it is a nice basement, not scary at all), is the campus’s music library. This was a second home for me when I was writing my dissertation on opera and American literature, and when I was pairing music with novels for my Intro. to American lit lecture. Love you, Mills!

A charming stone fountain (which is currently under renovation) separates Memorial from the stone and marble loveliness of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The library there specializes in North American and Wisconsin history, genealogy, politics, government publications, newspapers, and women’s and ethnic studies. Its collection of newspapers from the 18th to 21st centuries is second only to that of the Library of Congress. And on the fourth floor of this happy, happy place is the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, where I worked as an editorial assistant, helping to give birth to…you know…MORE BOOKS!

Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society

Across the plaza from Memorial is the University Bookstore, where many students get their class texts and used copies of miscellaneous books. They have a pretty nice selection of new books on the top floor, and a very extensive selection of used Penguin and Oxford novels that were sold back, bizarrely enough, by students at the end of each semester. Whatever.
Not too far away is the bizarre-looking building that is home to the English Department, where lots of books are read, talked about, written about, and basically dissected until the books run away screaming. Ahh grad school…

Helen C. White Hall
Helen C. White Hall

And who could forget the many many many cafes that line State Street, filled to the brim with books that have people behind them. Espresso Royale (both locations) draw more of a grad student crowd, while the Starbucks and Free Trade locations are more undergrad-y. Either way, all you see are cups of coffee and books books books (and laptops, where people are taking notes and writing papers on books). I love this city.

East side

Ah, the east side. Home of the co-ops and bike paths (actually, the whole city is basically one big bike path) and bookish things! Well, it used to be more bookish (see my lament for lost bookstores), but Star Books closed several years ago (loved that place), and a couple of bookstores barely lasted a year closer to downtown. But not to worry- here you will find many cafes catering to the Madison book lover. Frugal Muse, which recently closed its northside location (we’ll consider it east side here) still has a storefront on the west side. Half-Price Books has a convenient location near East Towne Mall, which sports a medium-sized Barnes & Noble. I bought a biography of Thomas Mann there once. Good times. Westfield Comics is also pleased to call the east side home.

Inside Half Price Books
Inside Half Price Books

West side

Oh dear. Where do I begin? Here you’ll find many of the university’s professors, more bookstores, comic book stores, and cafes in which to read those books. Did I say “professors”? Why, yes I did. In fact, UW-Madison has attracted many renowned writers and scholars. The Creative Writing Program has included such talented writers as Amy Quan Barry, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Judith Claire Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, and Ronald Wallace.

Capital City Comics
Capital City Comics

Frugal Muse, Half-Price Books, and Barnes & Noble can also be found here, but the latter is one of those- you know- HUUUUUGE Barnes & Nobles, the kind with the second floor full of used books.


I don’t know about other cities, but Madison’s extensive public library system is first-rate. There are libraries EVERYWHERE, all lending happily to one another and hosting baby-, kid-, and family-friendly activities.The Central Library just had a grand reopening extravaganza, and boy is it nice-looking. It has lots of natural light (thanks to all that glass), inviting exhibits and stacks, and a beautiful children’s section that covers an entire floor and is filled with play nooks, reading nooks, interactive media, and books books books.

Madison Central Library
Madison Central Library

You’ll also find Little Free Libraries in random, wonderful places. For instance, one just popped up in my neighborhood- don’t know when; it just APPEARED one day! Like the book fairy was passing through.

Little Free Library
Little Free Library

And who could forget the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes over downtown every year, with author talks, presentations, book-signings, and a whole lotta book lovin’. Here‘s what went down at the latest one.

Famous Writers from Madison

Last but not least, we must mention two of the more famous writers who were born right here in Madison: Thornton Wilder (in 1897) and Alice Sebold (in 1963). I’m also gonna mention that Laura Ingalls Wilder- that’s right, LAURA INGALLS WILDER, WHOM I LOVE- was born in Wisconsin, but not in Madison, unfortunately (it was Pepin). I went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside and Cabin several years ago and basically swooned on the spot.

Well, that’s our tour! I hope you’ll come see us soon.

(first posted on Book Riot 12/15/13)

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